Art review: Photography – A Victorian Sensation

Photography: A Victorian Sensation at the National Museum of Scotland by Cramb Brothers, of Glasgow, 1865
Photography: A Victorian Sensation at the National Museum of Scotland by Cramb Brothers, of Glasgow, 1865
Have your say

THE ADVENT of photography gripped Victorian society, revolutionising the way people viewed the world around them, and each other

Photography: A Victorian Sensation

National Museum of Scotland, 


The past is sepia. Looking at old photographs, we know we are looking back in time, but there is still something about their physical quality, not just in sepia, but in black and white too, that suggests, like the atmosphere that turns the distant hills blue, it is the mist of time itself that gives them their peculiarly evocative quality. This is an illusion, no doubt, but it is also true that we are looking back through layers of technical change in the process itself. Photography: a Victorian Sensation at the National Museum of Scotland traces that evolution and the excited response it generated.

Light projected onto the focal plane of a lens forms an image. Using this principle, the camera obscura was used by painters already in the 17th century, but in 1725 Johann Schulz, a German anatomist, observed that silver salts darken when exposed to light and this suggested a way the image could be captured. It took a while to work out how to do this, but in January 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot in England and Louis Daguerre in France went public simultaneously with the first photographs. Fox Talbot’s invention was the calotype. The image, invisible till developed, was recorded on a treated paper negative and was then printed on a paper positive. The texture of the paper gave a softness to the final image. It was painterly and Fox Talbot recognised straight away photography was an art form. No surprise then that it was a painter, DO Hill, who, in partnership with the chemist Robert Adamson, really first exploited Fox Talbot’s invention. In Scotland, approaching photographic portraiture, Hill could also follow Raeburn, master of observed light. Consequently in Hill and Adamson’s portraits, though they are almost the first of their kind, photography already seems mature.

Louis Daguerre’s invention was the daguerrotype, which records an image on a treated silver plate. Each daguerrotype is unique, but the highly polished, reflective surface gives them a wonderful elusiveness. It is as though they really were magic just as they must have seemed. The daguerrotype was exploited commercially straight away. Already in 1839, Dageurreotypomanie, a cartoon by Théodore Maurisset, shows the world taken over by cameras while, displaced by the new art form, a row of unhappy artists hang themselves in despair. It was in 1839, too, that James Howie advertised the first exhibition of daguerrotypes in Edinburgh and he began to produce portraits commercially in 1841. His roof-top studio on the corner of South St David Street is recorded in a contemporary view from the Scott Monument. The daguerrotype’s exposure time was better than the calotype’s. It rapidly improved, too, till a picture could be taken in less than a second. Tiny silver portraits, exquisitely mounted in gold, became fashionable items of jewellery, or were set against gold and velvet in ornate cases. There are dozens here in all shapes and sizes and one of the features of this remarkable exhibition is how the sheer profusion of the new art is vividly conveyed by cases filled with dozens of examples of the different popular forms that photography took as the century progressed and the technology advanced. Many of the instruments are on show, too, beautifully made, mostly in brass and mahogany.

There were other kinds of innovation, too. In 1851, Sir David Brewster who had already been instrumental in DO Hill’s taking up photography, made a second contribution with the invention of stereoscopic photography. It rapidly became a Victorian craze as dozens of examples amply demonstrate. Fox Talbot himself also made a further important contribution to the story. A well-to-do amateur, he invented photography and then gave it up, but the permanence of the photographic image was an anxiety from the start, so he took it up again determined to find a way of making photographs truly permanent. For this he came to Edinburgh to seek the cooperation of the city’s skilled printers and eventually patented the process of engraving a photographic image directly onto a metal printing plate, or photogravure, a technology still widely used.

Another important innovation was made by Robert Adamson’s brother, John, a doctor in St Andrews, but also a photographer. “Say cheese” is now the cliché of all photography. If no-one is smiling, the picture’s a failure. In contrast, however, Victorian sitters are solemn and remote. They are also usually supported by portentous looking props to help them look dignified. (A catalogue of furniture for photographers’ studios indicates what was expected.) Historically, too, no one ever smiled in portraits, so the weight of the portrait tradition also required solemnity, while long exposure times anyway made spontaneous expression difficult. Although it is not remarked on in the exhibition, it seems to have been John Adamson who changed this. He took pictures of people looking directly at us and smiling. In consequence, his portrait of Helen Murray, for instance, seen close to and smiling directly at us, looks startlingly modern, even beside the portraits of Julia Margaret Cameron, celebrated as some of the finest of their time.

The next big technical advance was taken by the sculptor, Frederick Scott Archer. Dissatisfied with available methods, he invented what is known as the wet collodion process: a coated glass plate produces a negative which can then be printed. This combined the clarity and depth of tone of the daguerrotype with the calotype’s multiple images. It was also easier, cheaper and faster than either. Photographs had been limited by cost to the relatively well off. Now they became universal. Carte de visite portraits, printed on stiff card in the format of a visiting card and used as such, were made in their millions. The same format was used for landscapes too.

But then, with the invention of roll film and in 1900 the introduction of the Kodak Box Brownie – a camera for all at a dollar a time – not just photographs, but photography itself became universal. Other innovations have followed down to the introduction of digital photography in 1991 and the camera phone nine years later, but perhaps all the same, the gap is less between the Kodak Box Brownie and the camera phone, than it is between the Brownie and the first pioneers just 60 years before. With the Brownie everyone could be a photographer. They could record their own lives as and how they wished. So, for all the astonishing new technology, although colossal, the real shift since then has been in scale, not in kind. Universal now really is universal. Photographs are taken everywhere and all the time. More photographs are taken every two minutes than in the whole of the 19th century. Seventy million are loaded onto Instagram every day. The reality is way beyond anything that Théodore Maurisset could have imagined even in his wildest dreams back in 1839.

There is a significant Scottish dimension to this story, too. Photo-graphy, light-drawing, or painting with light chimes with Enlightenment and although it was not a Scottish invention, it did indeed quickly find a home here. The interests of the painters and scientists and the pool of knowledge and skills built up in Scotland over the Enlightenment years all combined to ensure that the new art got a rapid and creative response. Scottish Photography: The First Thirty Years by Sara Stevenson and Alison Morrison-Low, published to accompany the exhibition, tells this story and amply demonstrates how the Scottish contribution to the early history of photography did indeed grow out of and thus extend the Enlightenment. But Scotland was fashionable too. People everywhere wanted pictures of the scenes made famous by Walter Scott. Accordingly, in one of his earliest enterprises, Fox Talbot himself travelled to Scotland to pay homage to Scott in Sun Pictures in Scotland, while Louis Daguerre, himself a painter, had earlier paid a similar homage in a Diorama of Holyrood Abbey.

Until 22 November